The Rules of Engagement for armies allow the use of lethal force only as a means of last resort.
On October 20, 2020, the Nigerian Army opened fire on peaceful protesters sitting in front of the Lekki Toll Gate, killing scores of young people in violation of military rule and norms of decency.
The Rules of Engagement also state that after the shooting has ceased, medical assistance must be rendered.
On that day, the Nigerian Army packed the dead and dying into their trucks, picked up bullet casings of discharged cartridges and scrubbed the scene of the shooting to hide the evidence of their crime.
These were some of the chilling accounts uncovered by the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry into the massacre that occurred on October 20, 2020, in Lagos led by Doris Okuwobi, a retired high court judge.
“The army in the circumstances of their engagement did not comply with their own Rules of Engagement in the conduct of their operation at the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of 20th October 2020,” the panel report said.
According to the panel, if the army had complied with its own rules, a single shot need not have been fired to persuade the unarmed and defenceless youth to leave the Lekki Toll Gate in preparation for the commencement of the declared curfew by the state government in the evening (9pm) of October 20, 2020.
Long used to treating its civilian populace like the spoils of war, the Nigerian Army officers turned their guns on protesters guaranteed a right to peaceful protests by the Constitution the soldiers swore to uphold.
After a sustained agitation since October 8, the #EndSARS protests had morphed into a movement. First of its kind in the history of civil disobedience in Nigeria, the movement lacked central coordination, leadership was organic and fluid, it was organised in its chaos, and cohesive in its fragmentation but its message was coherent, simple and clear: Disband SARS!
Donations procured food and water; the unruly were picked up and handed over to the police, the protesters even cleaned up after themselves.
In a country where over 20 million young people are without jobs, where poverty is endemic and the government is blundering, a rogue police unit preying on defenceless youths was more than they could bear.
In response to the protests, the government offered tokenism, it will set up more panels, announced the disbandment of SARS, but these were things the protesters had heard before, lies they had grown inured to. It was not going to cut it, which meant the protests were not going away soon.
So, the Lagos State government having tried moral suasion and failed sought help from the Nigerian Army, who mobilised from the 65th Battalion, led by Colonel Bello in seven military trucks and arrived at the scene at 18:51:14hrs.
In trying to justify the deployment of the Army, its principal witness before the Panel, Brigadier-General Taiwo, said, “Once a protest goes past 2-3 days, it will be hijacked by hoodlums.”
There was well-documented evidence of brigandage following the protests. Shopping malls in Lagos and Surulere were looted, public transport buses were razed, police stations were ransacked and some policemen were killed by mobs. Even a television station in Lagos was vandalised.
But not at the Lekki Toll Gate: The #EndSARS protest at Lekki Toll Gate in particular was peaceful and orderly and was not hijacked by hoodlums, the panel held.
“So, there was no need for any apprehension on the part of the government or the security agencies to seek to dispel that peaceful assembly, with soldiers bearing lethal weapons,” the panel said.
The only other logical explanation for unleashing the army at the Lekki Toll Gate comes down to economic considerations. Media reports quoting government estimates put the value of returns from the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge at N10 million daily, while the Lekki toll plaza at N16.6 million a day. For a state that operates a renter system, government departments double as revenue-generating agencies, money provides a motivation to unleash the soldiers on the people.
The army had earlier claimed that protesters pelted them with stones and had been forced to use blank bullets. Video evidence and medical reports from Reddington Hospital disproved these claims. The army had tried to persuade the protesters to leave and when they refused, they fired into them. General Taiwo, who gave testimony at the tribunal, was not at the scene rendering his testimony hearsay.
“His failure to present the commanding officer Lt. Colonel Bello, who was on ground and Brigadier General Omata, who later joined him at the Lekki Toll Gate, is fatal to his account of what actually happened on the night of the 20th October 2020,” the panel found.
The panel said the video evidence of the LCC and those of Serah Ibrahim showed the soldiers were shooting in the air and at some times directly at the protesters. Both accounts of the Forensic Experts and the Ballistic expert support the evidence of Serah Ibrahim and other witnesses, the report said.
According to the report, the evidence of Reddington Hospital and Grandville Hospital established that about 20 persons who claimed to be protesters were treated for wounds consistent with gunshot injuries.
One of the protesters who was shot and taken for dead, Olalekan Sanusi, eventually escaped, narrating his ordeal and experience stated that at least 11 corpses were in the van, where he had been put in and presumed dead. Another witness Dabira Ayuku also testified that she saw seven bodies being put in a military truck at the Lekki Toll Gate.
The Nigerian army officers who carried out the massacre turned back ambulances that were invited to render first aid and assistance to wounded protesters, the report said.
But it wasn’t just the military that should be garlanded for infamy on that day. Police officers at the scene also shot at fleeing protesters. That bloody Tuesday night will remain in infamy in the annals of the Nigerian Army. But analysts say without accountability, a common thread in recorded atrocities by the Nigerian Army, and this would only be a dress rehearsal for the next massacre.
In response to separatist agitations in the South East, the Nigerian security forces have committed a catalogue of human rights violations and crimes under international law including excessive use of force, physical abuse, secret detentions, and extortion, burning of houses, theft, and extrajudicial executions of suspects. Human rights groups estimated that the death toll of violence between January and June 2021 in Anambra, Imo, Abia, and Ebonyi states might run into the hundreds, reports Amnesty International.
The Nigerian Army has conducted operations in villages in the Northeast where they burnt down homes and opened fire on residents indiscriminately while hunting Boko Haram fighters, according to evidence gathered by Amnesty International
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